Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U.N. countries club

At ‘unprecedented’ sessions this week, cities spoke directly with national governments — and decried their status as mere ‘observers’ of the multilateral process.

Mayors from around the world take part in the Habitat III Local Authorities Informal hearings at the United Nations, 16 May (Christopher Swope)

UNITED NATIONS — From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, countries are regular fixtures here at the United Nations, day in and day out. This week, however, technicians were asked to programme some new places into the nameplates — Banda Aceh, Cologne, Johannesburg and São Paulo, among many others.

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Purportedly for the first time in U. N. history, mayors and local officials from cities and regions around the world gathered this week to address the assembly of nations. They did so as part of preparations for the Habitat III conference, this year’s U. N. summit on urbanization, which seeks to provide a set of 20-year guidelines for the future of cities, the New Urban Agenda.

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

City leaders, in turn, made the journey to New York in the hopes of having a say in the details of those guidelines.

“We need to play a very specific and concrete role, not just in defining the New Urban Agenda but in implementing it,” said Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, whose city will be hosting Habitat III in October. “We also think it’s possible to act at the global table so that local governments’ views will be taken into account effectively in developing the New Urban Agenda.”

He was joined by over 100 of his peers from across the globe to kick off the Second World Assembly of Local Authorities, a multipart gathering ahead of Habitat III that hopes to catapult local leaders into a more active role in global affairs. The assembly’s first session met 15 May, followed by two days of hearings with U. N. member states on the eve of the first negotiations over the New Urban Agenda, whose first draft was released less than two weeks ago.

[See: Habitat III process entering political phase]

In a symbolic move, the hearings treated cities and countries as equals, with each occupying half of the allotted floor space, separated by an aisle. The arrangement looked like a wedding chapel, with the bride’s family sitting on one side and the groom’s on the other.

The chance to speak to member states was “unprecedented”, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos said during the World Assembly. “For the first time in the history of the U. N., a dedicated platform has been created for major groups and local authorities to directly address member states,” he noted later at the hearings.

[Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

Yet while cities came out in force, most countries declined the invitation. Approximately three dozen national governments popped into the room during the two days of hearings, and just a handful spoke in response to the repeated calls from mayors for a more equitable relationship with their national counterparts.

There was also a clear indication that the United Nations’ systems are not yet ready for a new member of the family. While those countries that did come were granted a nameplate and desk per custom, city names were ultimately not programmed into the nameplates — paper ones were used instead.

No mere observer?

The crux of the dilemma for local governments is that under existing U. N. rules, they are afforded the “observer” status of an NGO. But that designation, says Josep Roig of United Cities and Local Governments, the network of cities that represents local governments in U. N. negotiations, “is a contradiction in and of itself.” To his mind, it is illogical for a sphere of government to be considered non-governmental. “We consider ourselves United Cities inside the United Nations,” he told Citiscope.

UCLG is hoping that Habitat III results in a recommendation to change this status into something new entirely. The Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, an umbrella group advocating for local governments in the Habitat III process, has asked for a promotion at the UN-Habitat Governing Council from observer to “special status”. Such a change would allow for a more active role in decision-making and negotiating — especially this year, with the New Urban Agenda under consideration.

[See: U. N. General Assembly approves Habitat III rules, ending 8 months of limbo]

Such a change would not be unprecedented. The Global Taskforce, for instance, cites the example of the International Labour Organization. And with a potential beachhead at UN-Habitat, the group hopes eventually to earn some kind of special status across the U. N. system.

Advocates are also asking for the U. N. Advisory Committee on Local Authorities — an outcome of the last Habitat conference, held in Istanbul in 1996 — to be transformed into a more robust entity. Specifically, this could see the establishment of an International Multi-stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization on which local authorities would serve and the declaration of an International Decade on Sustainable Urbanization. (The latter two proposals were first offered by the General Assembly of Partners, an umbrella advocacy group for civil society in the Habitat III process. References to both are currently included the first draft of the New Urban Agenda.)

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

These proposals are some examples of what a seat at the table would look like, with others expected in the coming months ahead of Habitat III. Quito Mayor Rodas alluded to an ongoing effort by the AL-LAS, a network of Latin American and European cities, to “put forth specific mechanisms that will make it possible so that local governments can participate at the global table in an institutionalized manner.” Other potential models include the inaugural Parliament of Mayors, slated for September in The Hague.

Whether these grand ambitions will gain traction with national governments — who would have to sign off on any such change in status, at least at the U. N. level — is another matter. In an interview, Roig noted that a dialogue would have been preferable to hearings this week, as member states would have been expected to actively participate in the former while attendance in the latter is optional.

Nevertheless, he declared himself “optimistic” and called this week’s gathering “small steps, but recognition that we have been treated distinctly.”

Putting the city in ‘citizen’

Regardless of national governments’ engagement, cities came with a strong message: As the local level of government, they are best poised to enact change, especially on the pressing social and economic issues that the U. N. hopes to solve.

Indeed, this was a point acknowledged by U. N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson. “Your institutions are among the closest to citizens — to ‘We the Peoples’, in the words of the U. N. Charter,” he said at the opening of the hearings. “You face daily challenges in terms of housing, jobs, basic services, infrastructure and many more tasks affecting our citizens’ life in a very tangible way.”

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, a former anti-eviction activist who recently took office riding on a populist surge, took the city-citizen connection even further. “We have citizens that remind us every day that we have to do more and we have to do better,” she said during the hearings, earning the most applause of the day in a fiery speech peppered with reference to social movements. “Demanding citizens are the foundation of democracy and we need to obey them,” she continued.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize ‘participatory’ urban development]

As a result of this close proximity, cities serve as policy laboratories that can incubate ideas that will filter up to the national level, according to U. S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. He quoted the former New York mayor Ed Koch, who called his city “where the future comes to audition.” Castro explained: “That’s still true of this city, and it is also true of cities around the world. The communities you represent are often at the vanguard of smart policies and practices to improve the human condition.”

It is precisely for this reason that cities are demanding more of a say in U. N. affairs. Habitat III Secretary-General Clos — also a former mayor of Barcelona — suggested that a traditional truism needs revision. “As a former mayor, I have always considered a little insulting the phrase ‘Think globally, act locally,’” he said at the Second World Assembly to an audience of mayors. “As if we locally are automat implementers of whatever has been thought at the global level.”

Clos then offered his own refashioning: “Think locally, because we know the problems, and act globally, because some of the problems can only be solved at the global level.”

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